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52 Films By Women: Cheryl Dunye's 'The Watermelon Woman'

By Kristy Puchko | Film | February 10, 2016 |

By Kristy Puchko | Film | February 10, 2016 |

Realizing we’ve featured a string of dramas with our 52 Films By Women club, I was looking for a comedy when I came across Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman, a 1996 indie that’s not only acclaimed but also historic, and painfully relevant today.

After making six shorts, the Liberia-born Dunye wrote, directed, and starred in The Watermelon Woman, essentially playing herself, a young black lesbian seeking to make a movie in Philadelphia. This made her the first openly gay woman to make a feature-length film, and The Watermelon Woman the first feature-length film about a lesbian of color ever. But Dunye did more than tell a groundbreaking tale of lesbian romance. As the provocative title suggests, this comedy also looks into the past of black women’s representation in Hollywood cinema.

Inspired by Classical Hollywood era actresses like Butterfly McQueen and Hattie McDaniels, and infuriated by the pigeonholing that only allowed them roles as mammies and slaves, Dunye created a fictional lost star, “The Watermelon Woman.” Within the film, Cheryl not only deals with the day-to-day frustrations of working at a video rental story (oh the ’90s!) with her best friend Tamara (Valarie Walker in her only feature film role), and her budding relationship with a movie-loving white girl (The L Word’s Guinevere Turner), but also strives to make a documentary about this titular performer. By tracing down what became of this (fictional) icon of early Hollywood, Dunye is able to explore representation, institutional prejudice, and homophobia through the decades. Watching the film, it’s impossible not to think of #OscarsSoWhite and the recent Coen Bros’ controversy, and how far we haven’t come.

(The Watermelon Woman was shot in 16mm, which looks janky by today’s standards. But if you’ve handled the picture quality of Clerks, you can handle this.)

In the final credits, Dunye leaves a message explaining the film’s blend of fact and fiction with “Sometimes you have to create your own history.”

It was her bold yet humor-filled approach that won praise from critics as the film played at such prestigious venues as the Berlin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. But The Watermelon Woman also met with controversy, specifically over its graphic lesbian love scene.

See, a portion of the funding ($31,500 of its $300,000 budget) came from the National Endowment of the Arts. And when Washington Times reporter Julia Duin read a review describing The Watermelon Woman’s love scene as “the hottest dyke sex scene on celluloid,” she publicly questioned why the government was funding (what she saw as) smut. This editorial hit just as the budget of the NEA was up for debate in the House of Representatives, spurring Republican Representative Peter Hoekstra to demand a $31,500 deduction from the NEA endowment. Basically, it would be a punishment for funding The Watermelon Woman. Thankfully, all that bluster was for nothing and the bill was passed without Hoekstra’s homophobic amendment.

As for Dunye, she’s gone on to helm films like Stranger Inside, The Owls and Mommy Is Coming.

Watch The Watermelon Girl on Amazon Prime.

Kristy Puchko invites you to tweet at her with your #52FILMSBYWOMEN picks.